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Oil Sands History


The written history of the oil sands dates back over 200 years ago when the first Europeans spotted bitumen along the riverbanks of the Athabasca River. The local Aboriginal people had already long been tapping the resource to waterproof their canoes.






The first European to see the Athabasca oil sands was fur trader Peter Pond, who was lured to the area in 1778 by tales of the rich fur harvests there.


In 1788, Alexander MacKenzie wrote in his journal:


Sir Alexander Mackenzie


"At about twenty-four miles from the Fork, are some bitumenous fountains; into which a pole of twenty feet long may be inserted without the least resistance.


The bitumen is in a fluid state, and when mixed with gum or the resinous substance collected from the Spruce Fir, serves to gum the canoes. In its heated state it emits a smell like that of Sea Coal. The banks of the river, which are there very elevated, discover viens of the same bitumenous quality."




Other explorers were equally fascinated by the oil sands, including map maker David Thompson and Arctic explorers Franklin, Richardson and Simpson.


The first government-sponsored geological study of the oil sands was initiated in 1875 and carried out by John Macoun. Robert Bell headed another government expedition into the area seven years later.


In 1889, the chronicler of the Laird expedition noted:



“That this region is stored with a substance of great economic value is beyond all doubt, and, when the hour of development comes, it will, I believe, prove to be one of the wonders of northern Canada.”




Commercial Development


The first attempts to develop the Athabasca Oil Sands commercially were made under the assumption that the bitumen in the area must be coming from pools of oil deep beneath the surface. In an attempt to locate these pools, Alfred von Hammerstein drilled the first wells in the region, north of Fort McMurray. Altogether, between 1906 and 1917, about 24 wells were sunk in the search for the mother-lode of oil. None were successful at finding oil, but they did discover salt which became a major industry in the Fort McMurray area for 50 years.


Barrels of bitumen waiting for transport

In 1913, Sidney Ells, a young engineer employed by the federal Department of Mines, began his work in the oil sands, which was to last until 1945. Ells was an early advocate of the hot water flotation method of separating bitumen from sand and he conducted a number of experiments to test this technique. He was the first to bring out samples from the area for laboratory testing. As a result, oil sand was shipped to Edmonton to be tested as road paving material. While the paving was successful, oil sand could not compete economically with imported asphalt and the project was dropped.


Aerial view of the Bitumount plant

In the 1920s, entrepreneur R.C. Fitzsimmons used the same hot water flotation process to produce bitumen for roofing and road surfacing at a plant near Bitumount, 80 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. By 1942, however, financial difficulties forced him to sell the operation. In 1948, the plant was taken over by the Alberta Government to investigate extraction methods with large scale equipment.


By 1949, the plant was processing 450 tonnes of oil sand a day, but it was closed because the government was not interested in launching a commercial venture. Data from the experiments was used as the basis for a major study of the viability of commercial production.


Dr. Karl Clark (left) in his laboratory at the University of Alberta

Dr. Karl Clark, a scientist with the Alberta Research Council in the 1920s, pioneered experiments with a hot water flotation process which involved mixing oil sand with hot water and aerating the resultant slurry. This would then separate into a floating froth of bitumen and a clean layer of sand which would settle to the bottom of the tank. The hot water flotation method pioneered by Ells, Fitzsimmons and Clark proved, over the years, to be the most viable method of extracting oil from the sand.


In 1936, another developer, Max Ball, founded Abasand Oils Ltd. His plant west of Fort McMurray produced diesel oil from the oil sands. There was a brief flurry of interest in his project, especially during World War II. When the plant burned down after being purchased by the federal government, the project died with the buildings.


The 1950s saw another upsurge of interest in the oil sands when the publication of an Alberta Government report indicated that production from the sand could be a profitable venture.


In 1962, the Government of Alberta announced an oil sands policy to provide for the orderly development of oil sands in such a manner that it would supplement, but not displace, conventional crude oil policy.


Original pilot plant at Mildred Lake

The first project off the mark was the Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) Project. GCOS went through a number of ownership changes after its incorporation but, by 1963, prior to the construction decision, ownership rested with the Sun Oil Company (later Suncor Energy). The Suncor project came on stream in 1967 and became the world's first oil sands operation.


In the meantime, the Syncrude consortium was formed in 1964. Syncrude's initial objective was research on the economic and technical feasibility of mining oil from the Athabasca oil sands. Syncrude's proposal for a production facility was finally approved in 1969.


In 1973, construction began on the Syncrude site and, after five years of construction, the first barrel was shipped on July 30, 1978. The official opening of the Syncrude Project was on September 15, 1978. Production steadily increased in the ensuing years and, on April 16, 1998, the billionth barrel was sent down the pipeline, five years ahead of schedule.